I lost my heart at HellsGate

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There is a road in Rockford, Illinois that is known locally as ‘Murder Road.’

If you follow that road far enough, you end up at one of the most beautiful haunted houses I have ever seen.

Welcome to HellsGate.

I can’t do a better job of describing the amazing amount of detail put into this haunted attraction any better than John Laflamboy and the Zombie Army did in last year’s episode of Days of the Living Dead, here: Raising Hell. In an industry where so many of us struggle to find a usable location to turn into a haunt, that video is a breathtaking example of what building exactly to your specifications looks like. 

And holy poop, was it worth the effort. As someone whose haunt roots are deeply entrenched in theatrical shows, I found the level of detail to be astonishing…from the solid bannister in the first room to the wallpaper and lathe to the ceiling textures and wood beams, there’s so much to take in that I think the VIP pass should be one that just lets you walk around taking your time to see everything. We didn’t see a single thing that looked unfinished. I don’t want to give anything away, so I think I’m just going to say that the opening room, the twins’ room (OMGdollhouses) and the trophy room were my favourite scenes…although the slides were a first for me and I kinda love the way one leaves the haunt! 


The actors’ costuming and characters were exactly what you would expect from the Zombie Army: detailed, unique, and smart. No random screamers, no ‘get out’..good startles, true to character, often creepy as hell. And you WILL see acrobatics that will wow you. Indeed, the ‘wow’ factor is left in the very capabkw hands of the actors. There are some animations, but the majority of the scares are delivered by the cast. While  I think I might have liked to see some stronger characters working the front of the house, there were some really great queue line actors. (Bird lady, I’m looking at you.) 

Speaking of the queue line? So well done. Excellently managed so you don’t really see how long the wait is ahead of you. From being bussed into the ticket line to walking up the the haunt and cemetery to the way they filter you into the haunt, I was very impressed with how well HellsGate handles its crowd.  Judging by Facebook, the queue line and wait time needed to be tweaked after opening weekend, and from what I see, this was done successfully. (Also? I’ve NEVER seen a haunt say to its attendees, “If you had a problem opening weekend, we’d like you to come back.” This is me paraphrasing, of course, but dang, that’s some awesome customer service right there.)


It’s my personal belief that a quality haunt should have a walk-through cemetery. HellsGate does not disappoint. They make great use of the environment and add enough creepy dangling decor to completely distract me – which, I’m sure, frustrated the actors trying their best to scare me. The cemetery is a great example of a place where you will miss things if you don’t take the time to stop and look up, or look behind you. The visuals are so, so worth it.


If you are a fan of Crimson Peak-esque horror, if you love high detail, if you long to visit a place that feels real, you need to get yourself out to HellsGate.

…I can’t wait to go back.

shifting sands

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Books were a major element in the story of my childhood/young adulthood. And many of those books crossed my path because of my mother.

One of these, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, became profoundly significant to me. Beyond the look into a world that is so incredibly foreign, it was a book of possible magic. It was also a glimpse of a non-western religion, which fascinated me, and I was equally fascinated by the realization that there were people in my every day life that defined themselves as Buddhist rather than Christian, Jewish, or pagan.

My mother was one of those people.

She had a statue of Babaji, the deathless avatar, in her home, and I think that out of all of her belongings, it is this humble figure that I associate the most with her.  It’s not that we discussed Babaji, or Yogananda, or even the book very much, if at all.  Our spiritual discussions were much more about Ramtha and Shirley MacLaine.  Still, she gave me a copy of Autobiography, and it’s one of my ‘comfort-food’ books, always possessing a spot on my bookshelves even when most of my library lives in boxes.

Recently, I discovered there was a documentary about Yogananada on Netflix.  The name of the film is Awake, and the trailer is at the top of this post.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the list of people I know that have watched Awake, and know about Yogananda.  When my mother brought up the film in a conversation, though, it was not the conversation I expected to have with her.

“Have you read the book?” she asked.

I was floored.

“…Yes.  You bought me a copy,” I reminded her.

She had no recollection of that memory.

I accepted, a long time ago, that there’s a long list of experiences my mother has forgotten over the years.  She’s told me repeatedly that I have an amazing memory – and I do; I still remember living in Florida when I was 3 or 4 – and that she doesn’t remember varied parts of our history.

But to not remember this was a shock.

Perhaps it is as simple as we all hold varied things to varying levels of importance.  It’s certainly true that I’ve had people tell me, “You said something kind to me once and it meant the world to me,” and I don’t remember that exchange.

Once Upon a Time, having our histories not mesh would have thrown me into a tailspin of confusion and unsureness about what to believe, who to believe, what stories to trust, because for a good chunk of my formative years, my mother was my fellow traveler along the path to enlightenment.  She was my touchstone to sanity.  Which is not to say I put her on a pedestal; I simply depended on her emotionally in a way that I’ve not seen mirrored in other mother/daughter relationships.

But.  Things change.

Relationships change.

A few years ago, I found myself in Yuma.  “JZ Knight lives over there,” my friend Sherry informed me with a nod of her head.  It felt odd, to be in that place and not be there with the person that bought me the white book.  I wonder now if, had I called my mother, if she would have remembered that shared history, or would it be another question of oh, have you read that book?

I can’t capture in words how weird this all feels, how odd to realize that my spiritual path has been solitary for longer than I realized, how startling it is to discover that the relationship I thought I had wasn’t as profound as I thought.

So. This is the state of me, on shifting sand.

I am sadder than I want to admit.

“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
Jalaluddin Rumi

 

 

the not-a-friend friend

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Two things have floated past my Facebook feed today that have inspired enough thoughts to justify a blog post.  The first reminded me of a friendship I took a long time ending but, in the end, his confession many years ago that he did not in fact defend me in my absence was the beginning of the end.

10600616_729315847173351_5772921761439119439_n(Because yes, I think this stuff matters.  A lot.  Speak your truth,  man. And in this case, don’t tell me someone slandered me and then tell me, “But I didn’t correct them.”  No excuse.)

And then there was this post shared by my friend Luna, in which the author talks about the benefits of having a friend that’s not really your friend and about what you can learn from that relationship.  In particular, this quote stood out:

Between putting me down, questioning everything I did, and spreading lies about me behind my back, I realized that you weren’t actually my friend. You were just another person who was stuck in their insecurities, who needed to put others down to keep yourself up. You were more focused on yourself and your own problems than on our friendship. That’s not the kind of friend I want in my life. While I was blinded to this side of you because you were a new shiny friend for a couple months, I finally realized we had no friendship. Initially, this realization saddened me, but, in the end, I’m better off without you.

There are friendships, relationships, that never really leave you.  For better, and for worse, that connection is so entangled in your brain that even when the person is gone, their ghost never leaves you.  I’ve known people that get mentally and emotionally stuck in that ghost-relationship, rehashing the grievances, the hurt, the memorized path of how things went wrong, that they can recite the history at a moment’s notice and never move past the pain.

These are among my least favourite ‘discussions’ to have, because it’s not a discussion, there’s no resolution or healing, there’s just mental gear grinding.

The quote above reminds me of one of those people.  She’s someone I wish I could send that quote to, because that’s exactly why our friendship ended 10+ years ago and I didn’t have the words then to express the why to her then.

We were friends from 4th grade until well into our adulthood – or so I thought.  Unlike the first friendship I mention in this blog, it didn’t take me years to figure out I was better off not knowing this person.  No, sadly, our relationship started to end when I learned that she was describing me to others as ‘a waste of human flesh,’ and, when called on it, replied, “I’m sorry you head that.”  This discovery led to others, other negative descriptors that was in direct contrast to what she said to my face.

I’ve been sad about the way things went for a long time.  In part, I’m sad because I know she still hurts from the ending of our ‘friendship’ and because I know we have mutual friends wishing we could make amends.

But ya know?  I read that quote, and I thought, ‘Yes.  This.’

The people in my life today are people I trust, completely and utterly.

…I find myself wanting to say more about that, but I don’t think I need to.

People like C and L have taught me what I expect, what I need, out of a friendship.  What I want to give to a friendship.  And today, I may have just finally hit a point where I can be thankful for that lesson instead of sorry for the loss.

 

 

Sean “Bazil” Duran: November 25, 1966 – April 30, 2016

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I have so much I want to write and I have no idea how to write it.

So let’s start with a present.

bazil 2

“I have a present for you,” Chris said, somewhere around 1993, and handed me this little plaster Day of the Dead sculpture.  “Bazil made it.  He made a bunch for a gallery in Chestnut Hill, but when they told him they were gonna sell them as authentic Mexican art, he said no and took them back, so…this one’s for you.”

When I think about Bazil – Sean – this story always comes to mind.  I didn’t know him well, but I knew he had strong convictions and would not only stick to them, but would also make sure the people around him did as well.

Sean was one of the iconic actors at my beloved haunt, Grisly Gothic Gables.  He joined the cast to help him learn how to talk in front of crowds (or so I’ve been told), and perhaps one of the reasons I can’t think of Grisly without thinking of him is that he proposed the haunt’s name to the owner, Allan, during a brain storming session.  His butler character was funny-bizarre, vaguely slobby, definitely frenetic…my favourite haunt memory of him is him filling in for a clown scare, still dressed as a butler.  When the time came to scare visitors, he rose out of a hollowed out bed holding a fake butcher knife and announcing, “I’m not a clown, but I’ll kill you anyway!”

(Lesson:  As long as you understand the scare and what’s expected of you, improv – even if it’s on the bizarre side – as long as it’s in the character of the haunt?  It works.)

I suppose it helps to understand that I became a haunter not because I loved scary movies (which I did) or because I thought Halloween was pretty (which I did), but because the first time I saw Grisly Gothic Gables, with Bazil and Janice at the front of the house looking like everything I’ve ever wanted to see in haunt actors…well, I fell in love with the haunt, with the cast, and at the core of my haunter-heart you’ll still find that perfect visual.

You’ll still find Bazil.

Bazil was the one that helped my ex husband understand why haunting is fun.  “Do you know what a pig pile is?” Bazil asked one day.  “You don’t?  Ok.  So let’s say you enter a room through a door on the left side of the room and the exit door is clearly visible on the right side.  How do you leave the room?  No, you don’t go out the exit door, you jump on top of each other LIKE THIS!! and then you knock down a wall behind you and you leave that way.”  Despite being jumped on and nearly knocked over, my ex agreed to come to Grisly to see what a night of haunting was like, and he ended up doing tag-team scares with Bazil.

…Good times.

At the museum where we all worked, Bazil did so much that most people don’t know, rather like at Grisly, where he designed several of our t-shirt designs with no credit claimed.  He (along with fellow Grisly Peter Cook and Peter’s wife, Lisa) worked on a book about our dioramas that has been used extensively by the teacher naturalists there, and can be found now in the Drexel University library.  He discovered a forgotten mummy by literally tripping over it in our collections. He restored Edgar Allan Poe’s raven, which now resides at the Philadelphia Free Library.  He worked on the butterfly exhibit where I became a butterfly keeper, and helped create The Big Dig, an interactive looking-for-fossils exhibit I helped maintain over the years.  (I’m told he was inspired by Peter and Lisa’s visit to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.)  He and artist Ray Troll worked together on several projects, including one at our museum. He was instrumental in creating the Crazy Critters Chuck Jones exhibit that I have…way way too many stories about working.

For someone who touched so much of my professional life at the Academy, you really would think we would have seen each other more. Alas.

Bazil moved on to work at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami, where his resume is truly amazing. Like, amazing in a way that you look at and you think, ‘What couldn’t this guy do??’ I think I speak for many of us when I say that Bazil was the kind of person you quietly make a role model and you hope someday to be even a fraction as good at..well..ANYTHING as he was.  Because he touched so many people’s lives and varied worlds, I’m sure there’s an incredible amount of stories and discoveries to come that will astound those of us that knew him.  (Heck, just from the bit of research I’ve done here, I’m in awe of the man.)

Bazil is survived by his wife, Kat, and his daughter, Bridget…and he’s mourned by too many people to count.

Thank you for touching my life and for inspiring me, you most perfect Grisly.

bazil

Info about a celebration of his life:

13151813_10208988289125406_6052856665183054380_n

More info about Sean:

http://www.frostscience.org/blog/a-loss-for-frost-science-and-miami

https://sciencemuses.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/your-listening-hue/

http://blog.orselli.net/2011/09/why-we-do-what-we-do-interview-with.html

http://www.martinhsu.com/press.php?p=50 – Dinosaurs of China exhibit

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/article6718815.html – Amazon exhibit

http://www.frostscience.org/blog/miasci%E2%80%99s-sean-duran-awarded-prestigious-noyce-leadership-institute-fellowship

http://www.frostscience.org/blog/green-roof-tour

bazil

 

 

flying into the future

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I am a very nervous traveler.  In case I haven’t made that clear enough.

By the time my date of departure has arrived, I’ve left Bones copious notes on how to run the office without me.  He has copies of my travel itinerary, travel insurance, and visa. And he’s had to deal with my almost-frantic need to be at the airport 2 hours early.

“It’s a tiny airport,” he reassures me.  “An hour will be fine.”

As it turns out, my itinerary has the wrong departure time on it, and we end up arriving at Kalamazoo Int’l Airport about 10 minutes before my flight is supposed to leave.

*cue panic*

Of course, everything is fine – it’s always fine – and Bones walks me up to  Security.  I realize that the last person to do this was my mother, in North Carolina, many years ago.  I pretty much always fly alone, which is partly why I’m so nervous about travel.  (Ironically, someone that was a love interest for half a second told me I was a ‘cupcake’ and he couldn’t imagine me navigating an airport alone.  That statement still has too much volume in my head.)  Don’t get me wrong..I love travel. I love flying. I love the adventure of it all and I think I even love the overly inflated sense of responsibility I have to make sure everything I can control goes right.  But anyway….yes, Bones walks with me and I am overwhelmed by how patient and supportive he is.

I start to cry.

“You’re going to AUSTRALIA!” he says, and hugs me, and he looks so damn happy for me that it makes me cry a little more.  He’s so selfless.  Never at any point has he acted jealous or negative in any way about this trip, this opportunity.

I am so very, very lucky.

~~~

The Kalamazoo airport is just minutes from my house, and it may be one of the nicest airports I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit.  I board a small plane that hops me over to Detroit, where I decide to go get a drink and some lunch.  Idly, I check in with JS and discover he’s also in Detroit, a few gates over from me!  (We’d been joking about racing to see who got to Australia first..after we actually compare our tickets, we realize we’re on the same flight from LA to Australia.  So much for racing!)

JS and I visit for a bit. His flight is scheduled to leave a bit after mine, and he strikes me as someone who is remarkably ok with waiting for the next stage of his trip.  (I get a little restless, I admit, and while I like to be at my gate early, I will also tend to go look at the local shops to kill some time.)  Then it’s off on our next flights, to meet again in LA!

This is my second time at LAX, and I can’t say I’ve cared for my experiences there yet.  Today is no exception.  A glance at the departure board tells me I need to go to gate 52B.  Which takes some searching.  Because it looks like this:

airport a

As it turns out, we have to take a shuttle bus from this gate to the int’l terminal.  Have you ever wanted to be in a vehicle driving alongside planes? I did not want that experience. But I got it. We are taken to a TOTALLY EMPTY terminal and I won’t lie, it’s a little creepy..

airport c

I send JS a series of Facebook emails (that he doesn’t see until he gets to Australia) telling him what to expect, as the passengers that share the shuttle with me admit they’d all been sitting up by this sign for far too long, not knowing they had to go somewhere else, and I know JS has a shorter layover than I do.  I then walk along with my six fellow travelers to what I’m pretty sure is our certain doooooooooom (Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train, anyone?), but  – lo and behold! – instead we find ourselves in the happily busy international terminal.  YAY!  I get my American money converted into Australian dollars, find some much needed coffee, eventually find JS, and get in line to get onto the next plane.  Which, as it turns out, is on Virgin Australia.

Ok, Virgin. I think I love you. Everyone gets water, eye masks, ear plugs, book marks, and a pen. Snacks and sodas by the rest rooms so you can serve your own dang self all thorugh the 13 hour flight.  Also? USB plug so I can charge my phone  AND an entire row to myself so I can stretch out and SLEEP!

airport d

Next stop?  AUSTRALIA!!!

 

i’ve got the power?

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Back at home, I realize that most of the packing I’ve already done should probably be redone.  One suitcase is dedicated to costuming, and contains wigs, makeup, 3 pairs of shoes that have all been test-worn to make sure they’re comfy, 3 costumes (2 dresses and one coat-and-pants outfit in case it rains), a glue gun, needle and thread, zip ties, varied types of plug adapters, some small hand tools…anything I can think of that might be useful for build/tear down as well as costume repair and daily haunt work.

I keep reminding myself that this is not China, that I’ll be able to buy things if I need them.

I keep ignoring that rational part of my brain and rethinking everything I’ve already packed.

The other suitcase contains day to day needs.  Clothing for down time, work clothing, sunblock, hats, pain killers, bandages, protein bars, antacids, Zip Fizz…I keep rechecking the weight of the suitcase, reconsidering the contents, adding stuff, taking stuff out..

Bones tolerates the chaos very well.  Because the man is a saint.

Several trips to the thrift store later, I’m pretty sure I’m as prepared as I’m gonna get.  Maybe.  Probably.

My carry-on contains,among other small items, yet another pair of shoes and a power converter with an adapter plug.  This is something that completely confused me on my China trip, and so I’m overcompensating this time around.  I think most of us know that the electricity in the US is 110V and 220V pretty much everywhere else.  Which means you need to buy a power converter.  However, the outlets are also different, so you also need a plug converter.  When I went to China, I only bought the plug converter…and honestly, when you do a search on ‘power converter’ on Amazon, you get more plug converters than power converters, so I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s not purchased both parts of the needed system.

Additionally in China, we had power surges and people using the converters that didn’t really know how to use them…so we had lots of fried equipment.  The trick with converters is to get one that will handle the wattage you plan to use…so you have to take a look at the electronics you’re bringing and figure out how strong a converter you need to purchase.  If you underestimate your wattage need, that’s when your electronics get destroyed.  After a lot of thought and looking at my budget, I decided I really didn’t need to bring a hair dryer or flat iron, so a 100 watt converter would probably be fine, and I already had a plug adapter.

I actually can’t find a pic of my adapter, but it looks sorta like this.  I purchased this power converter, which is a heavy lil’ guy, so I packed it in my carry-on bag, and while it could handle my glue gun, it probably couldn’t have handled a hairdryer.  I liked the USB port on it, because it meant we could charge multiple things at one time.  That said, if all you’re worried about is keeping your celphone charged, you could totally buy something like this and make your life much easier.

In the days leading up to my departure date, I obsess about supermarkets and food prices and how the guys don’t seem nearly as concerned as I am but I’m on a super tight budget and I am WORRIED and B1 told us to do it THIS WAY and maybe no one but me intends to do that and maybe I can get a slick little ‘buy from us and we’ll give you deals’ card from the stores but oh I can’t get that mailed to me in time and maybe I shouldn’t bring so MANY shoes but I’m so scared my plantar fasciitis might flare and that’s a hell I just don’t want to ever face again ever and is that really strong enough sunblock and…

Proof of Bones’ sainthood is that he didn’t strangle me during those final days of preparation.

 

frozen bottles of waters might just save your life

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One of the things that I was immediately impressed with about the prep for my Australia trip was the lack of things I had to worry about.

“What airport do you want to fly out of?”

“Ummm…Kalamazoo, if it’s possible…”

“You got it!  Your visas will be emailed to you soon.”

“Wait, I don’t have to apply for those?”

“Nope!  It’s covered.”

“What about travel insurance?”

“Covered!  Details are coming.”

“How many suitcases can I bring…?”

“Two.”

“What’s the luggage fee?”

“….It’s covered!”

“BUT I STILL HAVE CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS AND AUUUUUGH!!!” *

“We’re having a one day meeting/training here before you leave the country!”

The way this process usually works is that people interested in joining Haunt Team USA head to Ohio for a two-day “boot camp” in which candidates get into costume and practice the types of things they will have to do in Australia.  It’s a tough, intense audition.  People that end up going don’t always get selected their first time through the boot camp.  But it is, hands down, the absolute best way B&B can prepare their team, and we’re at a disadvantage because we aren’t getting the benefit of that training.  Instead, we’re having a very abbreviated ‘here’s what you need to know’ intensive workshop.

That meeting was when I first met the people I’d be living with for about a month…JS, the oldest member of our team as well as the most extreme of us (think Rob Zombie covered in gore with a heart of gold and you’ve sorta kinda got JS in your mind), W, the youngest member of the team with the most experience for this gig (this would be his 7th show in Australia!), and R, W’s girlfriend (an Aussie and a sorta-team-member).  We spent maybe 5 hours going over the gritty details of what we needed to know to be really prepared for this upcoming adventure.  B&B do an outstanding job of prepping the members of Haunt Team USA, and their notes include a suggested shopping list, as buying groceries is something you might only get one chance to do so.

B1 focuses a lot on buying groceries.  “Grab two carts.  Fill them.  Spend $100 for each person.  Have your list ready ahead of time.  Buy anything you think you might want, and then take turns cooking meals for the group.”  He makes it very clear that the best way to get through this venture is to work as a team.

He warns us that good insoles will be your best friend.  Also, frozen bottles of water might  just save your life.  Oh, and bring things you don’t mind not bringing back with you.

“Haunted houses are still new in Australia.  The audience there is not like what you find here.  They will scare differently.”

We’re given instructions on how to manage ticket collecting at the door…told to try to defuse situations at the haunt rather than be aggressive about them…told to watch out for Vietnamese gangs that might try to steal tickets from us.

And also?  Fear the daystar.

“There’s no ozone layer over Australia,” B&B warn us.

“Ummm…say what now?”

“No, really,” R chimes in.  “It’s a serious thing.”

B&B, as well as W, share stories of sunburn – “My eyelids got burned!” is one in particular that terrifies me – that make me want to run from the room screaming in terror.  I can get more surnburn in 30 minutes than most people will get over an entire summer. Finally!  Something I can for real legit worry about:  How will I ever survive nearly a month without being burned to a crisp??

In the midst of my worry, it’s suggested I go get the metric poop ton of costuming I’ve brought along with me to go over character ideas with B2 while B1 continues to talk to the rest of the team.  Part of the interview process for this gig was sending photos of myself in varied haunt costumes, and I thought I was more or less prepared costume-wise, but in my panic over sunburn and heat stroke, I’m already eliminating about half of what I’ve brought with me.  (Admittedly, part of my problem is that my focus has always been more on operations than on performing; so, although I have characters, haunt acting is secondary to me.)  B2 patiently dealt with my panicked self as I babbled my concerns at her, threw costuming all over her living room, and whittled my choices down to three.  B2 then had a photographer-friend shoot some pics of me to be considered for use for a booth display B&B were taking to TransWorld in a few weeks…

Next was dinner, and then an extended bit of chatter after everyone but me had left (extended, in part, because I friggin’ love B&B and hadn’t seen them in much too long)…which means I got home ungodly late.  But it was worth it.  Because now not only did I feel more prepared, but – as previously mentioned – I now had something to actually obsess about…sun protection!

Back at home to repack my suitcases a few dozen more times over the next week, and then….to the airport we go!

 

* I wasn’t entirely this bad.  I think.  Probably.

…No, I was totally insanely bad.